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The strums of a guitar, the heartbeat of a kick drum fashioned out of a suitcase, and the intertwining harmony of husband-and-wife duo Jenny and Tyler Somers flood the living room in Simi Valley, Calif., where 35 people have gathered to hear them perform. During a lull in the music, indoor pet birds chirp in response and the room laughs. Tyler walks over to the kitchen for a glass of water, and Jenny talks to the crowd, asking for song recommendations and sharing stories of their 3-month-old baby.
They sing of their marriage, Jenny’s one-eyed cat, the struggles of their Christian walk, and hymns like “See the Conqueror.” Afterward the owners of the house invite everyone to mingle and enjoy cookies in their back porch.
This was just one of the 30 house concerts the duo Jenny & Tyler perform each year. Fans volunteer their homes and enjoy a dinner and concert with the musicians as attendees pay a $10 entrance fee.
It’s a picture of a new age in Christian music. Artists are exploring different sounds, writing more honest lyrics, and discovering new ways of growing their fan bases thanks to the digital revolution. What was once the typical road to “making it”–getting signed to a major record label and relying on radio play to sell CDs–is being turned on its head with the emergence of iTunes and music sites like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube.
For Christian artists, this means freedom from the set sound and content that has defined Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). From indie rock to electronica, country-folk to hip-hop, new bands are finding fans and speaking out about their faith. For some, success has come unexpectedly, as technology allows the rapid spread of songs written for Sunday morning services. Other artists become a jack-of-all-trades, producing and promoting their own music.
Critics haven’t parsed words in describing CCM. Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church calls it “prom songs for Jesus.” Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins said on CNN, “Hey Christian rock, if you want to be good, stop copying U2. U2 already did it.” Dustin Kensrue, formerly of the rock band Thrice, said his biggest issue with CCM is its oftentimes sloppy, man-centered theology. “On top of all that, there’s a cheesiness to a lot of it that comes out of a sound that’s grown from the rest of culture,” he said.
In the early 2000s, Christian radio tried an edgier format with Christian Hit Radio (CHR). In 2003, Seth “Tower” Hurd, then 19, started working at a Chicago CHR station, Shine.FM, thinking he’d found a career that he’d dedicate the next 20 years of his life to.
But over the next decade, things started to change. The rock and hip-hop-infused Christian music didn’t jive with affluent donors. Christian radio, which is funded by donations rather than ad space, realized it couldn’t make money off of the CHR format. At the same time, major secular corporations like Capitol Records bought out Christian labels, shifting the focus from missions to profits. “Artists were pushed to write songs specifically for the soccer mom or they were just dropped and had to find a new way to get music out there,” is how Hurd, and others, put it. By the end of 2012, the CHR format officially died: Billboard stopped listing CHR charts, and Hurd was fired. Although he had been the station’s most popular radio host, management said he wasn’t what the audience wanted.
Christian radio today has reverted to its nonoffensive stance, which means not only a lack of swearing but also staying away from theological truths that could offend the wide variety of Christians who fill their coffers. Citizens, a worship band at Mars Hill Church, faced this issue when it tried getting its single “Made Alive” on the radio earlier this year. Kensrue, the head of the church’s record label, Mars Hill Music, said that stations turned down the upbeat indie rock song because of lyrics like “I once was dead in sin, alone and hopeless / A child of wrath I walked, condemned in darkness.”
Since then, a few stations like Air1 have picked up the song, and listeners have requested more play time. But for Citizens and the other bands at Mars Hill Music, radio play and selling albums were never their main goals. “We wrote the song ‘Made Alive’ because we have an 8 o’clock service and we wanted a song that’s fun and dance-y and lets them just shout the gospel and the fact that by the grace of Jesus they’ve been saved,” said band leader Zach Bolen.
Mars Hill Music, which partners with Tooth & Nail Records, is made up of the worship bands at the megachurch’s 15 sites. They write songs for their church and later record them at a recording studio in the church office. From the redone hymns of King’s Kaleidoscope to the roots-rock band Ghost Ship to Kensrue’s solo alt-rock album, each band performs in its own artistic style. A Mars Hill pastor and Kensrue vet each song to ensure it is theologically sound. “Made Alive” is now sung at churches across the country, while Citizens’ debut album reached No. 20 on Billboard’s top Christian albums.
Acoustic-folk duo All Sons & Daughters also didn’t see fame and fortune as their end goal. Instead, Leslie Anne Jordan and David Alan Leonard, the worship leaders at Journey Church in Franklin, Tenn., specifically didn’t want to be part of a band that would take them away from their church family. They wanted to write songs for their church and what their church was going through: “They were songs of desperation, acknowledging of our need for God, allowing ourselves to talk about brokenness and ask questions,” Leonard said.
As they started recording EPs for their congregation, a fellow church member invited them to join Integrity Music, a label that supplies worship music to other churches. Last year All Sons & Daughters released a trio of EPs, with The Longing hitting No. 5 on Billboard’s top Christian albums, and Reason to Sing hitting No. 5 on the Top Heatseekers, which tracks new artists. All this without any radio play; instead fans found them through social media or hearing their songs like “All the Poor and Powerless” at church.
The two are surprised about the group’s success but most excited that local worship leaders use their music. “We come from a community of honesty, so we’re given the ability to say things others don’t have the freedom to in all contexts,” Jordan said. “We’re excited to be able to be in this conversation in the churches.”
For those without a church platform or radio and label backing, it takes more than good songs to make a living in the music industry. Hurd said this new digital age of music isn’t necessarily an easy time for new artists, but “this is a good time for artists who want to learn how to be marketers also.”
One of the first artists to explore this brave new world was Derek Webb, a former member of the Christian band Caedmon’s Call. He left the band to start a solo career in 2001, and caught criticism by the CCM community for his controversial song topics.
Without the support of Christian radio, he built his fan base by playing house concerts, giving away music online, and offering special promos with his albums. He also helped start NoiseTrade, which allows listeners to download music from independent artists for free, because he found that giving away music pays off as new fans will buy tickets to concerts and future albums.
“Some of the new music business will train you to focus more on a smaller, really committed, supportive group of people rather than trying to get everyone on the planet to know about what you’re doing,” Webb told the online journal The Great Discontent. “That’s the secret of the new business–if your ego can bear it, there’s a great blue-collar living to be made as a professional musician.”
And Jenny & Tyler are following that path. The two met in college and after getting married, moved to Nashville in 2006 to pursue their dreams of making music. At first they were concerned about being considered part of CCM, but “then we realized the songs we were led to write were more obviously about God,” Jenny said. Part of it was a pride issue and not wanting to be put in a box, she said, but they soon realized that they loved their Christian fans.
For the first few years, the Somerses did everything on their own, writing and recording their own songs, producing their own music, designing their own website, and promoting themselves. They ran Facebook ads and gave out free songs to anyone who would give them their email addresses. They put their music up on NoiseTrade, Spotify, and Pandora. They asked 100 fans to join their launch team for a new record by promoting it on social media. In return, each fan gets an advance copy of the EP. While playing more than 100 shows each year around the country, they’ve been able to build relationships with their fans.
Those fans are attracted to their simple melodies and honest lyrics. “Christ has died to truly set us free: free from shame, and free to confess,” Tyler said. “Confession translates to songwriting.”
The quality of the music is translating into unexpected listeners for several of these artists. Kensrue’s album The Water & The Blood received positive reviews from secular publications that are familiar with his music from Thrice. A few of Jenny & Tyler’s songs were featured on the show Pretty Little Liars, including one about their experience first believing in Jesus.
Mars Hill Music’s Ghost Ship noticed a site was sending lot of traffic to their song “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” It turns out an atheist feminist blogger had linked to their song. She said she didn’t agree with the lyrics, but she couldn’t stop listening to the song because she loved the music.
“It’s a crystallization of what we’re trying to do,” Kensrue said. “[We’re] making records that are musically excellent and the gospel is being heard by people who wouldn’t listen to Christian radio.”